CNHI News Service

McALESTER ? Correctional officers who can get off work today have an opportunity to address the Senate subcommittee responsible for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

"It's an open invitation," said District 4 state Sen. Kenneth Corn, D-Poteau, who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Public Safety and the Judiciary.

Corn's subcommittee has been given a July 14 deadline by the Senate leadership to come up with a solution to the perennial funding problem at the DOC ? including chronic staffing shortages at Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester and other prisons across the state.

The Public Safety and Judiciary Subcommittee plans to meet at 1:30 p.m. today at the state Capitol.

Corn said any correctional officers who would like to address the meeting can simply show up at his Capitol office about 15 minutes early or can phone 521-5576 to make arrangements.

Corn is not expecting to hear from DOC officials at the meeting.

"We want regular officers," he said.

Corn said he plans on asking correctional officers about how understaffing at state prisons affects the officers' abilities to keep themselves and their communities safe.

He called the situation in the state's prison system "a crisis."

"Currently there are two escapees on the loose and violence continues to plague prison populations around the state," Corn said.

At OSP, the prison is authorized to have 408 correctional officers. It has received funding for 324, and has 302 of the positions filled.

The officers who are on duty are responsible for 1,373 inmates behind the walls, plus another 68 who are in the minimum security Talawanda Heights facility outside the prison's east gate.

Some of the committee members met at Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester on June 27, where Corn and two other senators donned correctional officers' uniforms and spent part of the day assisting correctional officers in the prison's F Cellhouse.

Corn called the experience an eye-opener.

Meanwhile, Corn is confident the subcommittee will meet the July 14 deadline.

"We will have a plan," he said.

DOC Director Ron Ward said the DOC needs another $31 million to get through the fiscal year which began Friday. He also said the prison system needs $100 million in capital improvements and cited a leaking roof at OSP as just one example of the system's deteriorating infrastructure.

Virtually every institution in the state has reported an escape over the past year, according to Ward. Two escapees are still at large.

James Beaty writes for the McAlester News-Capital.

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